England v West Indies: Inside the Southampton bio-bubble

By Stephan ShemiltBBC Sport in Southampton

When you've waited 163 days for an England Test, it is no hardship to wait a few hours more.

In fact, it was almost inevitable that months of speculation, build-up and curiosity as to what a behind-closed-doors match would look like would be extended just a little longer by the Great British Weather.

Yes, it has been glorious during the coronavirus lockdown, but you only need think about playing cricket and dark clouds will gather faster than bargain hunters on Boxing Day.

But even the chance to lament rain stopping play is a joy when previously there has been no play to stop.

In that sense, the fact this Test is even taking place at all is testament to the ambition, imagination and attention to detail of those who have planned and delivered it, and the courage of West Indies for agreeing to travel to provide the opposition.

To R rate, social distancing and furlough - the list of terms few of us had heard before 2020 dawned - add bio-secure environment. Not a sterile, white-walled, sharp-edged hospital, but a stadium in Southampton with two cricket pitches, a hotel and a golf course to keep the inmates entertained.

The right to enter was only granted after a negative coronavirus test and the successful completion of daily questionnaires, while arrival and every subsequent passage through an external door involves a detour through a temperature scanner.

Inside, masks cover faces. Tape, arrows and footprints litter the floor, like a crime scene where only the feet were discovered.

Tables in the canteen are for one person alone, tables in the bar carry instructions for the maximum number that can sit there.

Along corridors, hand gel dispensers are sentries guarding doors, demanding that you do your duty before entering a room.

It would be a unique way of working regardless, but also adds an extra layer of newness for a BBC team delivering TV coverage of home international cricket for the first time in 22 years. Even the links for BBC Two's highlights show were filmed with the pundits socially distanced.

The entire BBC operation, living and working, is run from one corridor, which for some means the morning commute is little more than the few metres from bed to balcony, while others are dealing with inquisitive pigeons entering their quarters.

A pigeon flies into BBC cricket commentator Alison Mitchell's hotel room

In the Test Match Special box, the three people calling the action at any one time are spread out over five metres and three separate tables. The only cake allowed was baked by Radio 5 live's Eleanor Oldroyd.

For as much as things change - or it it is hoped they will through gestures like taking a knee - the more others stay the same.

The bowl, its white and cream bucket seats all in a resting position, was still served by the announcements of a familiar voice over the public address system. Jersualem was played at the start of play. An England opener was dismissed without scoring.

Naturally, the players had new challenges to negotiate. Captains Ben Stokes and Jason Holder got in a muddle over whether or not to shake hands at the toss, then were not faced with an interviewer, but a robot TV camera.

The fielding side were not allowed to rub saliva on to the ball, or give their caps or jumpers to the umpires.

In an enclosed environment, and with no-one else around, the players are closer to the media than they would probably like to be.

In the build-up, Stokes was forced to admonish a BBC producer, whose run around the golf course strayed across the path of the England skipper's round. West Indies reserve Nkrumah Bonner has been spotted collecting his Chinese takeaway from the hotel reception.

During play itself, it is the chatter of the players that fills the silence. The encouragement of the slip cordon, shouts of West Indies squad members who watch from their hotel balconies, or laughter from the visiting dressing room.

Even the instructions of the umpires are clearly audible. "It's the light. We'll take an early tea."

With that, the day's other soundtrack, the deep hum of the hovercover, started again. It was the groundstaff who were busiest of all, not only pulling the covers on and off, but also sanitising everything they touched along the way.

There was still time for another familiar Test pastime: grumbling as to why the players remained off the field despite the rain relenting and the light improving. Perhaps a crowd would have given a greater sense of urgency.

Then it was all over. End-of-day media duties performed on Zoom or with an extended microphone, followed by the players making the journey across the outfield to join the rest of us in the hotel.

Day one of the return is done. The hand gel, temperature tests and social distancing are not the cricket we know. The rain certainly is.

Welcome back.

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